Isaiah 52.13-end of 53; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10.16-25 or Hebrews 4.14-16, 5.7-9; John 18.1-end of 19
Almighty Father, look with mercy on this your family for which our Lord Jesus Christ was content to be betrayed and given up into the hands of sinners and to suffer death upon the cross; who is alive and glorified with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
EVERY Good Friday, people gather in churches around the country, and around the Christian world, for all or some of the time between noon and 3 p.m., to hear the Passion read and preached, and, in a certain sense, to enter into the reality of Jesus’s suffering on the cross.
The Common Worship framework for these three hours has in its central section the Proclamation of the Cross. A large, visible, plain wooden cross is slowly carried in, with pauses while a voice chants: “This is the wood of the cross, on which hung the Saviour of the world” (Common Worship: Times and Seasons, Church House Publishing, 2006). There is tangible suspense as the person carrying the cross struggles to balance the weight, and raise and lower it on the way to its final position.
Once it is in place, those who wish to are invited to come forward and offer what the rubrics coyly call “appropriate devotions”. This is hardly adequate to the intriguing gestures of awkwardness and eagerness that follow. Should people kiss the cross, embrace it, touch it lightly, or just bow reverently before it?
Yet the desire to get close to this rough, unfinished wood is palpable. Perhaps none of those who participate in this part of the liturgy are fully able to say what they think they are doing.
Last May, the BBC told the story of the carpenter Francesco Tuccio, from the island of Lampedusa, who found vivid and immediate meaning in the wood of the cross through the simple experience of wood itself — the broken fragments of a boat carrying Eritrean refugees which was wrecked at sea off the island’s coast in 2011. He went in search of the scarred debris, after meeting some of the survivors at mass in his parish church; they were grieving for their drowned relatives and friends.
Back at his bench, he made crosses from the salvaged wood to give to these people who had lost everything. He told the interviewer that the wood was unlike the wood that he usually worked with: it smelt of the sea, and it smelt of suffering. He recognised in it a quality of the holy.
His next project was to make a large cross of the same wood to hang in the church, as a constant reminder of the refugees’ suffering, but also as a sign to them of their rescue. Other commissions followed: first, from every parish church in Sicily, and then from Pope Francis.
A member of the British Museum staff heard Signor Tuccio describing in simple and direct language what he was doing, and wept as she listened. Almost immediately, she made contact with him to ask, unbeknown to the museum’s director, Neil MacGregor, whether he might make a cross for its collection.
The arrival of a bubble-wrap-and-brown-paper parcel in the regular mail forestalled her careful negotiations for special transport. What she unwrapped was a rough cross, bearing flakes of the blue and yellow paint that had once adorned another boat. It had been wrecked in October 2013, with the loss of 366 lives.
Two things happened as a direct result: Mr MacGregor accepted the cross as the last item to enter the collection under his supervision; and the Italian Navy initiated its Mare Nostrum sea-rescue mission.
For visitors to the British Museum, “This is the wood of the cross” silently testifies to the suffering that goes on with no sign of ending. It is there because this part of our present history should not be forgotten. It is also a sign of the solidarity of those who, having little themselves, cannot turn away from the plight of those washed up on their shores.
John’s telling of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus shows him progressively losing everything: the close presence of his friends, the support of the people who had heard him teach, his clothing, and, at last, his life. It is a story that we understand at one level, and yet find as baffling as it must have been for the soldiers who “looked on the one they had pierced” (John 19.37; Zechariah 12.10).
We know the ending, yet Good Friday holds us in the present, close enough to the wood to smell and touch it, and to find its meaning in our bodies rather than in our heads.